| Genesis 21:8-21
|Sun, June 20, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|I don’t recall anyone ever telling me that preaching would be so dangerous. Maybe if they had warned me I would have opted for a less life-threatening vocation ... the high-wire act at the circus, perhaps. After all, everyone knows what the preacher is supposed to preach today ... Father’s Day. Most of all, a father knows what to preach on a day like today! The fifth commandment would be a good place to start, don’t you think? Sure enough, when asked by a rich young man how to live Jesus includes "Honour your father and mother" among the commandments that lead to life (Matthew 19:19) Yes, that is what every Christian preacher worth their salt is preaching on today. Right? Wrong! Today Jesus puts strange words in the preacher’s mouth: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother ... whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me".
Thanks a lot, Jesus. It makes one wonder how many worldly-wise preachers are quietly sidestepping your words this morning. Just imagine a Father’s Day card inspired by this text. On the cover it reads: "Dad ... you’ve meant everything to me". Inside it says: "But that was yesterday. So long". Which is precisely the message that James and John give to their dear old dad, Zebedee, at the shore of the Sea of Galilee when they drop their nets and walk out of the family business to follow the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. And not them only. Jesus breaks the hearts of many a first-century family. He breaks the hearts of his own family. Remember? Someone tells Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside, wanting to speak with him. Does Jesus stop everything to welcome his own mother? He does not. Instead he says: "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?". Then, pointing to his disciples, he says, "Here are my mother and my brothers" (Matt. 12:46-50).
Make no mistake. These texts are sticks of dynamite ... just waiting to blow up in our faces. Here we are worshipping together with folk from all over BC who have spent the weekend creatively imagining the future of congregational life. They know as well as anyone that most folk come to our congregations hoping that it will strengthen the family. It is little wonder that churches build "Family Life Centres" and advertise themselves on their letterhead as a "Family Church". South of the border, vice-president Gore embarks this week on a campaign for the presidency committed to re-weaving the fabric of family life. ‘Family values’ is held up as the salvation of a culture rooted in something called the ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’. But then our children listen in as we pay attention to the ‘Judeo-Christian’ scripture. First they hear the story of Sarah and Abraham bickering over Ishmael, and the threat that he presents to newborn Isaac’s inheritance. It is the story of a father sending his first child and, Hagar, the child’s mother away. Not much there for Father’s Day, it would seem ... even with God’s rescue of the abandoned child in the nick of time. Then the children hear the red-letter words of Jesus: "I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother". Who would object if, without fanfare, we substituted some more ‘appropriate’ readings just this once?
Jesus. That’s who. Yes, Jesus would object. Because if you think his words scandalize us in our family-centred world then you can’t begin to imagine how scandalous he sounds in 1st Century Israel ... not to mention the Roman Empire of the 1st Century. If you think that the family is important in 20th Century North America, you can barely imagine its importance for Jesus’ first disciples. For them the family is everything. It is not only the safe, supportive home where children grow. It is more, much more. It is one’s home for life ... as well as lifelong employer and religious community. It is an extended community of grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews who together make up one large household. Like the immigrant families who arrive in Vancouver and house a huge crowd of family under one roof. Like the First Nations families known as ‘clans’. Like the tightly woven familial ‘mobs’ from Sicily. Family in Jesus’ world is an all-encompassing reality and source of identity. Then along comes Jesus forming a new surrogate family ... a family in which honour is given to the least and the last and the lost ... in which the outsider becomes insider overnight. Do you see how dangerous Jesus is in such a world? Jesus’ disciples have to make the choice. It is one or the other. Following Jesus means joining the family of Jesus ... a family whose leader is known to be a trouble-maker wherever he goes.
Even here? Is Jesus a trouble-maker even here? Well, I suppose he has already caused enough trouble for one day ... upsetting, as he has, our visions of a lovely ‘honour your father’ Father’s Day sermon. But there is more to it than that. Jesus wants there to be no mistaking that living as his disciples is going to cause us trouble. Remember last Sunday? "I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves". We do our best to invite one another to become disciples ... and in doing so we are tempted to give it the ‘soft-sell’. We make joining the band of disciples sound as simple as regular attendance at worship and the living of an exemplary life. But Jesus doesn’t pull his punches: "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master", he says. In other words, if the teacher is called names like ‘child of the devil’ his disciples can hardly expect better treatment. Three times in five verses Jesus says "have no fear" ... "do not fear" ... "do not be afraid". It is clear that Jesus assumes that those who follow him ... who proclaim the gospel "from the housetops" ... will be in trouble with all sorts of people ... that they will have reason to be afraid ... even of family. And this hasn’t changed.
Oh, we would like to think that it has changed. We would like to imagine that North Americans live in a different world than do the first disciples. After all, ours is a nation in which it is still political suicide to suggest the possibility of removing the name of God from the Constitution! Little wonder, then, that so many contemporary commentaries on these verses oh-so-carefully soften the tone of Jesus’ voice: reminding us that while the first disciples had left their families to join Jesus, most of us have not; pointing out that few of us have little to fear from the authorities or from our employers or neighbours because of our calling to follow Jesus. With a few twists of logic here and rhetorical flourishes there these gospel verses become a footnote of history rather than a way of life. Trust me, it is very tempting for any preacher who is not eager to collect danger pay to believe the commentators rather than to dare to take Jesus at his word.
Then on Wednesday a news-sheet arrives in the mail from ‘The Open Door’ community that I visit on my trips to study in Georgia. It tells the story of a growing dispute over health care at Atlanta’s Grady Hospital ... the only hospital in the city that has, until recently, provided free access to medical treatment for the poor and homeless. On the cover is a picture of thirty people being arrested for disrupting a County Commission meeting with songs and prayers in an effort to get the funding emergency at Grady onto the agenda. Another photo shows an elderly man shaking a police officer’s hand. You assume, on first glance, that it is a bystander congratulating the police on jailing the trouble-makers. But the caption reads: "Under arrest, Joe Criscuolo, 81, greets a police officer as he, his wife Goldy, and 28 others are taken to jail." In the accompanying story you read: "When Rev. Stalmacher, a local pastor, heard about the action, he brought a candle and signs saying, "Letting the Light Shine for Grady Hospital". He walked and vigiled all night in front of the jail and greeted us when we were released the next morning." So much for the commentaries and their domestication of the Gospel ... suggesting that the days of Jesus’ trouble-making disciples are long gone. Who says that following Jesus doesn’t still lead his disciples into trouble for shouting the truth from the housetops?
See the congregational tapestry that Jesus is weaving. In the world people like to say that ‘blood is thicker than water’. They mean that there is no bond more powerful than the bond of genetics ... family ties ... racial heritage. But here, in Jesus’ household, we learn something else. Gathered around the font we discover that in this new family water is thicker than blood ... that the bonds of baptism which bind together people of different families and nations and races ... are the most powerful family ties of all. We do not know how or when our ties with Jesus will get us into trouble at home or at work, at school or with the law. But we do know that it is inevitable that they will. The Crucified One knows all about the trouble that he says will befall us. He also knows that we need have no fear of the trouble that lies ahead ... because those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake are those who, to their abiding astonishment, discover life in all its wonder and fullness. Then our familial life together in the household of Christ will yet weave an amazing tapestry of resurrection for all to see. May it be.